Many writer’s conferences are filled with first-time participants. These individuals have finally gained the courage (and saved the money) to invest in their writing dreams and come to a conference. I admire and applaud their attendance and listen to their description about what they want to write and get published. Often they come to the conference with one agenda (often to sell a manuscript and get published) but they leave with a completely different agenda (often to improve their craft and learn about how publishing works). It’s a wonderful transformation process where people take their dreams and sprinkle into them (or readjust them) so they are realistic.
Yesterday I revisited an age-old question and today I’m going to continue that discussion with a different and specific twist—children’s picture books. Subconsciously I believe when I wrote yesterday’s entry, I was thinking about this headline in the November 14th issue of Publisher’s Weekly, “What Happened to Picture Books?” by Judith Rosen, a frequent writer for this publication. If you write these types of books, you are going to want to track down this entire article. Here’s how it begins, “Once an industry staple, in recent years picture book sales have begun to slip, pushed out of the way by a certain boy wizard and teen angst. Gone are the days when parents eagerly await the next Maurice Sendak or Chris Van Allsburg. Although publishing insiders agree that picture books are not dead—or as Mark Twain would have it, "News of their death has been greatly exaggerated"—outside of celebrity books and titles by established authors and illustrators, sales have been slow of late.” If you write this type of material, you should be concerned about this news—but don’t give up hope, keep reading. The picture book market runs in cycles and the cycle at the moment is not strong.
What the article fails to mention (and many people forget or don’t know) is the high production costs for a full-color picture book. If you have little children, you go to the public library or the bookstore, and have stacks of these picture books on your shelf. You snuggle up close to your child and read a bunch of books. After several of these titles, you begin to feel like you could write as well as the author. So you try your hand at a manuscript and because they don’t have many words, in a short amount of time you have something written. That doesn’t mean you should try and send that manuscript into the marketplace. Instead strive for excellence. Every word has to count in a full-color picture book. These books are costly for the publisher to produce—and publishers are going to make limited and wise decisions about which books are worthy of their investment. It’s the only wise way that publishers can continue in business.
Why the downturn in this cycle for picture books? Rosen says that retailers are choosing carefully which books they stock and while the major picture book authors are still in demand, it’s the mid-list books which have been cut (read new authors and authors who haven’t found their audience). Here’s some more of the reasons, Rosen writes, “Publishers attribute the downturn to factors ranging from demographics to the war, cuts in library funding, the decline in independent bookstores and the death of the whole language movement. “To a certain extent it is cyclical,” says Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Books for Young Readers at Henry Holt. “But it’s partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the extent that sales are soft, publishers tend to pull back.”
Just remember the cycle is down but that doesn’t mean it will always be down. Eventually the demand will return for more picture books—but the key even in the demand cycle will be quality children’s writing. Before I discourage the daylights out of all the picture book writers, there is hope in this article from Rosen. Here’s just one of the quotations of hope, “While not exactly bullish, Random House Children’s Books president and publisher Chip Gibson is committed to the category. “From day one in my time in children’s books,” he says, “I have been generously and consistently regaled with two great ‘truths.’ The first is that the children’s business is cyclical. The second is that the picture book is now mired in the underperforming side of that cycle. Well, regardless of cycling, picture books are a vital part of our work, so we are improving and increasing our program.”
Let’s return to the question of dreams for our writing and finding that dose of realism. I don’t mean to squash anyone who wants to write picture books. It is still possible. Here’s some suggestions for action: 1) study the craft of writing. Review the various articles about children’s writing on Right-Writing.com. Understand that it takes a lot of work to write a great picture book with few words. You will probably have to rewrite it numerous times to get it into the best possible shape. 2) join a critique group and if you aren’t in one, start one with other like-minded writers. You will gain encouragement and help for your writing. 3) consider writing for children’s magazines at the same age group that you want to eventually publish picture books. The magazine market is much quicker than children’s book publishing plus the opportunity is far greater for writers. Also if you pursue this course of action, you will gain publishing credits and experience which count when the editor looks at your work. My first published book was a picture book for children from ages four to seven.
As writers, each of us have dreams for our work—but we want to balance those dreams with a healthy dose of realism about the marketplace. Then we don’t enter it blindly but we are armed with knowledge and wisdom.